Using the Domino Effect in Fiction


Whether you compose your story off the cuff or take time with a carefully constructed outline, plotting a novel comes down to one question: what happens next? Using the domino effect in your fiction can help you answer this question with compelling scenes that will keep readers engaged.

Domino is a type of game piece, usually rectangular in shape and displaying from one to six pips (dots) or other symbols, that can be laid end to end in long lines to create very complex designs. Stacks of dominoes can also be made into 3-D shapes, and players can use their imagination to make other structures such as houses, castles, or cities.

The term domino has also come to refer to any of the many games played with these pieces, in which players place a domino edge to edge against another in such a way that their adjacent faces are either identical or form some specified total (e.g., two dominoes placed with their apexes connected produce a line of 12). The most common set of Western dominoes contains 28 tiles with matching ends; this is sufficient to play most positional games. More recent extended sets increase the number of possible combinations by introducing more than three dots on an end; a common double-nine set contains 55 tiles with matching ends.

Some games are based on blocking (e.g., placing a domino on an existing tile or over the top of a block); others involve scoring points; and still other games are purely luck-based. Some of these games are adaptations of card games; for example, a variant of Concentration can be played with a domino set.

Among the most common positional games are ones that involve the matching of dominoes by their ends; this can be done in conjunction with a scoring system or a betting system. In the latter, the first player to bet wins a round; this is often called “dominating.”

A variant on this theme is a set of rules wherein the first tile is placed on-edge, before the players, and each subsequent player draws a tile that is added to the end of the previous player’s tile (as shown in the image above). This prevents the discovery of the values of other players’ tiles by observation.

The domino effect is a popular metaphor for describing how actions have unforeseen consequences. In the context of storytelling, this can be a useful concept for writers to keep in mind when they’re writing a scene that runs counter to societal norms or otherwise goes outside a reader’s expectations. The challenge is to provide the motivation or reason that will allow the reader to forgive the character’s deviation from logical behavior, as well as the subsequent chain reaction that follows. A writer who masters this skill will be able to guide their audience through difficult or unpleasant territory with a minimum of fuss. By allowing readers to “save face” with their hero, they’ll be more likely to stick by them as the story progresses.